Oliver Morton: Science Journalism and Humanity’s Fascination with the Moon

By Eliot PeperMarch 6, 2020

Oliver Morton: Science Journalism and Humanity’s Fascination with the Moon
OLIVER MORTON’S The Moon is a masterpiece of science journalism that throws fresh light on its eponymous subject. Morton mines fields as diverse as aerospace science, history, astrobiology, mythology, geology, and science fiction in pursuit of lessons the Moon can teach us about space exploration, the universe, and ourselves. The idea-to-page ratio is stunning, and the story synthesizes decades of rigorous and enthusiastic research and reporting. The Moon is more than a book; it is a mirror that reflects life in the Anthropocene.

In the following conversation, we discuss Morton’s creative process, the lessons he learned writing The Moon, and the relationship between science and science fiction.


ELIOT PEPER: What is The Moon’s origin story? Why did you decide to write this particular book? Why did you frame the book as “a history for the future”?

OLIVER MORTON: It’s kind of prosaic. As an editor at The Economist, I sit on the editorial board of Economist Books, which is an imprint published by Profile Books in the UK and Hachette in the US. At a submissions/brainstorm meeting in the fall of 2017, someone floated an idea for a space book that I thought would be terrible, so to throw people off the scent I said, “If we really want to do a space book for 2019, we should do a Moon book because of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and because there’s a new interest in going back.” It wasn’t purely a ruse; from a publishing point of view it made good sense. But I was in no sense offering to do it myself — or if I was I was doing so, it was entirely subconscious.

However on the train home that evening I opened up my laptop and wrote an outline for the book and saw that there might be something there for me. And I also realized something very practical. All my books up until now have taken a long time. If I committed to a Moon book in late 2017 for publication in the first half of 2019, then I would have to deliver it in a year. This wasn’t an arbitrary publisher’s deadline that I could hear whistle past or my wonderful agents could get deferred. It was a specific window in which a lot of people would genuinely be interested in the subject I was writing about. The Moon isn’t a pure Apollo program book — and I hope it’s going to last for a while in a way some of them may not — but it was enough of an Apollo book that it just had to come out before the anniversary. So I had a real incentive to deliver incredibly quickly, by my standards.

The subtitle came about in a conversation with my editor, Clive Priddle at Hachette. (Interesting aside: Clive bought my first book, Mapping Mars, 20 years ago when he was at Fourth Estate, but moved on before I delivered it, and from then until now I had never delivered a book to the editor who bought it — until this one.) The structure I laid out on that train journey home was split into a past section that would lead up to Apollo and a future section that would go from now into the future, and its working subtitle, “A Past and Future History,” reflected that. But Clive thought it was a bit dull. “Past history” sounded oxymoronic to him, and though to me the phrase “future history” evoked Heinlein, that wasn’t a reference point for him. As we talked it through — after I had started the book, but long before it was finished — the phrase “A History for the Future” just popped into my head, and we both immediately liked it. Among other things, it gets the idea that there is a focus on the future and on the return to the Moon. Once I had that subtitle in mind, it helped me shape the book a bit; I became more conscious of the degree to which I was telling the bits of the story so far which, to me, mattered for the bits of the story yet to come.

The story weaves together threads as seemingly disparate as rocketry, mythology, astrobiology, and geopolitics. What does your research process look like? What did you discover that surprised you? How did you decide what to include and what to leave out? How did you go about finding a through-line?

I tend to be interested in a subject before I write about it, so I normally come in with a fair bit of knowledge. From then on, research and writing go together. On this project, I had the advantage of having written 10,000 words on new directions in space for The Economist in 2016 (a bit of that ended up in the postscript to the book), which had got me current with the field again. I used to write about space a fair bit in the 1990s but have done a lot less since then. So I felt I knew quite a lot about the sort of people thinking about these things now and the changes brought about by SpaceX and Blue Origin and the fact that the poles of the Moon were now seen as important real estate and all that. And decades ago I read into the Moon a fair bit for Mapping Mars, and so I knew some of the geological history and had some of the key books — Scott Montgomery, Don Wilhelm — and knew some of the veterans well enough to email them and get up to speed. I took a reporting trip for The Economist to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston in 2018, which introduced me to some new people and allowed me to get a real sense of the science as it now is. I read or reread a lot of science fiction and a range of books, review papers, and research papers.

And then as I wrote I did a huge amount of Googling, chasing down connections that suggested themselves to me.

What is the relationship between science and science fiction? How do they influence and inform each other?

A hugely difficult question, that. I can, though, say where they influence and inform each other: in my work. I sometimes describe myself as a nonfiction SF writer, and that’s never been more true than in this latest book.

Here’s a potted version of some of my thinking: in the 20th century, science fiction came to be set in the future (in the 19th century it mostly wasn’t) and the future came to be imagined as a realm knowable by science, largely because it was taken that the future would be shaped by technology and, by the end of the 19th century, the notion that science drove technology was becoming well established. Thus there was a new sense that both science and science fiction were “about the future.” But the science favored by science fiction was of a very specific sort — a sort that allowed stories of transcendental empowerment and confrontation with the other: space travel and superweapons and psychic powers and aliens and robots. Those trappings came to define the genre.

In World War II, two of the signature technologies of science fiction came about in real life, in part because of people who were science fiction fans: the superweapon and the space rocket. That gave heft to what has subsequently become a lazy way of thinking: that science fiction goes first and science catches up or surpasses it. That became the source of my least favorite tropes in science writing: “X used to be science fiction and now it is science fact,” and its relative, “Stranger than any science fiction but it is true!” One of the reasons that I hate those tropes is that they are lazy, but another is that they ignore the fact that things can be science fictional in terms of themes of empowerment (superweapons) and transcendence (space travel), not to mention alienation (robots and aliens) and still part of the real world — indeed, now, part of the real world’s history. Space travel does not stop being science fictional just because it is real. The way that my book deals with science fiction is an attempt to get that across — to show the science fictional sensibilities within both what has gone on and what is to come.

What lessons did you learn from writing The Moon? What did the book teach you?

That I could write a book in a year while holding down a day job (though with some generous dollops of time off from my boss). That was a genuinely open question when I started. Also I allowed myself some formal experimentation. I consciously used three different voices: a personal one for the prologue and epilogue, a very impersonal one for what I think of as the “interchapters,” and the same sort of style I have used in earlier books for the main chapters. I was aware that I have a developed a settled way of writing in my books: chapters of 10,000 to 15,000 words subdivided into four to seven chunks, and I wanted to break that a little. Also I wanted to get a lot of knowledge into the book — to legitimate its science-bookishness — without always saying where that knowledge came from or deploying it as part of an argument (as I did in my geoengineering book, The Planet Remade). In the past, I have tried to always give a sense of where the knowledge is coming from, how it is made; this time I tried out pure info dumps, and some reflections on who and why and how. As the book went on, this reflexivity felt good to me, because it picks up the idea of what a reflection of a world is that shapes the whole book. But I didn’t know that going in. Going in, I just knew I wanted some very impersonal explanation. So the book taught me stuff about form and content.

Another formal experiment was to allow the book to interrupt other texts within it — an Apollo transcript, some Heinlein — and later on to interrupt itself. I am not sure how much that worked, and I wonder if in fact I should have been a bit more radical at the end and added a level of truly random cut-up toward the end. But it worked well enough that no one said, “Oh, you wanker…”

Now that the story is out in the world, how do you look at the Moon differently? When it catches your eye in the night sky, what do you think about?

Those changes were much more obvious while I was writing it; now they are starting to fade away a little. It’s more noticeable, and I recognize its features better. I welcome it. I feel we have a bond.

What advice would you offer to science and technology writers who want to improve their craft? How do you synthesize information into insight?

On the first: Never write anything you know to be wrong. This seems really obvious, but it’s actually pretty hard. You are always tempted to simplify in a way that slightly falsifies, to give the gist correctly even if the account doesn’t quite work, to use the neat metaphor that you know doesn’t quite fit but reads really well. Fight that. I recently listened to a fine Tim Harford podcast about the creative benefits of obstacles and it strikes me that science and tech writing done this way brings its own obstacles with it.

Don’t see yourself as a conduit. You face one way — toward the source — when you are learning what you want to say, and the other way — toward the reader — when you are saying it. You are not a window between the reader and the source; you are drawing a picture of the source for the reader, and it is your picture.

Don’t strain; limit your enthusing. Always remember that science and technology have a social and historical context and let that understanding inform your writing even if it is not expressed within it.

Turn your hand to writing about cell and molecular biology if you get a chance — it’s hard and good practice, and it gets underserved.

While not being snotty about it, keep in mind that many of your colleagues/peers do not do this as well as they should, and that this probably applies to you a fair bit of the time.

Read your old stuff and try and see what’s wrong with it.

Read good magazine articles about almost anything under the sun.

Read stuff, then walk in fresh air.

What books have profoundly changed the way you see the world? What other books would fans of The Moon enjoy?

I know this isn’t what you mean, but the books that have done by far the most to change how I see the world have been the ones that I have written, because of how much I had to learn in order to write them. I devoured a lot of science and consulted my feelings and tried to get new historical perspectives, and that changed the way I saw the world. So by that measure I would have to recommend people who responded to the way the world is seen in The Moon that their obvious next step is to read those earlier books.

Beyond that, the most obvious influence is Jim Lovelock, especially his first three books, Gaia, The Ages of Gaia, and Homage to Gaia. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars helped me see planets the way I do — as, I guess, did Dune, now I come to think about it. H. Bruce Franklin’s War Stars changed the way I saw science fiction, and because that is the lens through which I see a lot of other things that has mattered. Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe was a crucial influence. More recently The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams was a real influence on The Planet Remade and has stayed with me since. But I have to say, slightly guiltily, that books don’t, by and large, change the way I see the world, or if they do so, they do it surreptitiously. I build the way I see the world from things I take from all over the place, but it is mostly fragmentary/syncretic.

Other books that readers of The Moon might enjoy? A trawl through the source notes/bibliographic essay would provide lots, including all the Moon classics. But here’s a few that spring to mind. Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings, which is a wonderful book about astrobiology; The Moon and the Other by John Kessel, my favorite recent Moon novel; Michael Light’s classic photography book, Full Moon; The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, on worlds that reflect and contrast. Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding lives up to its name — one of the best books about science fiction and its history I have read in years. Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey is about Kubrick and 2001, rather than Apollo, but there are obvious links, the timing matches, and it’s a really magnificent account of the creation of a work of art. And though I can’t offhand quite say why, I’d also throw in Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men.


Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His novels explore how technology shapes our lives and world.

LARB Contributor

Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Tor.com, Harvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, TechCrunch, and the Chicago Review of Books, and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Niantic, Future in Review, and SXSW.


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